AUBURN — John L. Smith’s tenure at Arkansas’s football coach was all but guaranteed to be a short one but he is making sure nobody will forget it, though for all the wrong reasons for those who support the Razorbacks.
He signed a 10-month contract in the wake of the firing of his former protégé, Bobby Petrino, after Petrino’s off-season motorcycle accident uncovered an extra-marital affair and the unethical hiring of his mistress.
Smith’s tenure, no matter how short, will be remembered for an ever-growing list of embarrassments, poorly chosen words and bizarre behavior.
Handed the keys to the No. 10 team in preseason polls with a heralded quarterback and dynamic receiver, Smith has driven the Razorbacks (1-4, 0-2 SEC) off a cliff in Thelma and Louise-like fashion in what is shaping up to be an all-time disastrous season in Fayetteville.
Facing an 0-3 start to SEC play, neither Arkansas nor Auburn (1-3, 0-2) can afford a loss Saturday.
Smith’s coaching reign was never a long-term vision, but an Auburn loss would have many on the Plains clamoring for the proverbial ax to fall on someone. Just don’t expect it to be coach Gene Chizik, unless of course you posed the question to Smith.
Asked by a fan a few weeks ago if he saw Petrino coaching at Kentucky or Auburn next year, Smith’s response insinuated Chizik would be fired, adding another element of intrigue to Saturday’s game.
“Kentucky or Auburn. I don’t know that Kentucky might be in there,” Smith said. “Auburn probably is a better guess if I were to guess, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Chizik has not commented publically about Smith’s remarks and former Auburn coach Pat Dye has been particularly outspoken in support of Chizik.
During a speech at the Montgomery Quarterback Club last week Dye said he would not trade Chizik for “10 (Alabama coach Nick) Sabans” and called Chizik a better man than Saban, which he has since apologized for. Dye ratcheted up his support for Chizik on Wednesday, telling an Arkansas radio show, “He wouldn’t be in trouble if he didn’t win another game.”
The same may not be true for Smith, whose failures on the field are only part of his problems. USA Today reported Wednesday that Smith amended bankruptcy papers to show he is more than $40 million in debt due largely to bad real estate investments.
Losing 34-31 in overtime to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock the second week of the season dropped Arkansas clear out the polls, the second-worst drop of all-time behind only Michigan after losing to Appalachian State in 2007. Then came a 52-0 thrashing at the hands of Alabama, the first home shutout for Arkansas since 1966, in which even his brief halftime interview was unusual.
Smith opened his press conference the following week with a bizarre monologue in which he yelled at the media to “get your chin up” and “smile!” After losing to Rutgers despite an all-time performance from wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (10 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns), Smith spoke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club and asked fans to continue to support the “state of Alabama program.”
Leading up to this week’s contest Smith was asked to comment on Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier, an Arkansas native.
“He’s like all younger guys in the league, if you play too darn early it’s maybe not a good thing,” Smith said. “But as you continue to play of course the great thing about young and playing early is you’re going to get better all the time and I think that’s what he has done.”
Frazier and the Auburn offense have a chance to get on track against the Arkansas pass defense which ranks last in the SEC and 117th of 120 FBS teams, allowing 349.4 yards per game.
It will be up to Frazier and Chizik to steer Auburn clear of a ruinous Saturday and avoid becoming like Smith and the roadside wreckage of distractions in Fayetteville.